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Martial Arts

(Seoul)—Today for Valentine’s Day, I made origami hearts for all the local people here, mostly from my taekwondo class. I love the quiet meditation that origami brings and sometimes use it in my work. But for this, my goal was to give the locals something they probably haven’t received before. From what I’ve seen, some Koreans give each other flowers and chocolates on February 14th, but I haven’t seen paper valentines. Or at least these kinds of valentines:

fancy origami hearts by yours truly!

Fancy origami hearts by yours truly

I was tempted to write, “You’re waegukin (foreigner) loves you!” but I decided against it. Baby steps, people, baby steps.

Kidding aside, I made these because aside from the fact that I like them, the people I’ve met here have been so lovely and generous despite the apocalyptic language barrier. I just wanted to let them know I’m trying, too! Kamsahamnida!

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The mixing of the traditional with the modern and the foreign have been a consistent source of fascination for me, as a waegukin (foreigner) living in Seoul. And so this official video of an excellently produced version of Les Miserables by the South Korean military hit home (from the official Youtube channel of the Republic of Korea Air Force):

This video is emblematic of my experiences here in taekwondo, which is used in the Korean military. While it is a daily 90-120 minute class of grueling militaristic training, there are some exercises that initially seemed to be a peculiar amalgam of tradition and Westernization.

In my class here (dojang #14 and masters #29 and #30), the language barrier is higher than the Namsan Tower, leading me and my teachers to communicate via our smartphones. They are quite patient with the first foreigner they have ever had in class (and for many, in their lives). While I’ve trained in other countries before, I have never experienced doing jump rope and taekwon dance until now. Two weeks ago, I remember laughing when the grandmaster mentioned Gangnam Style, without realizing he actually meant for us to dance it.

I thought he was kidding. He was not.

I suspect they didn’t think a waegukin will want to do it, but perhaps to their surprise, I did. (Hey, it’s still cardio.) So for the past few weeks, most of the cognitive load in my class have been devoted to learning how to dance K-pop with taekwondo moves, and learning how to jump rope to the beat of Gangnam Style and its parodies. It is quite a huge change from the traditional military-style training I’ve been exposed to. Instead of thinking it ridiculous, I actually feel that it contributes a lot to coordination and rhythm. And it shows. I see these nine-year-olds to be so disciplined, with side kicks past the level of their faces. They even gave me my own jump rope, which I need to practice with by myself as this is something I haven’t done since I was a little kid.

Here is a video of taekwon dance by Youtube user cOOlfren77:

A more extreme version of taekwondo jump rope is here in this video from Korea’s Got Talent by Youtube user taekwonropegirl:

Needless to say, I am absolutely transfixed at a rigid Confucian society making way for jaw-dropping creativity such as these. Especially for taekwondo, I like to imagine that such rigidity might have caused someone to snap and just do it to K-pop. Great fun.